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Understanding a sister's struggle: "In The Name Of Tradition"

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This is a short article about the terrible conditions women face in Nigeria.

After numerous conventions, declarations and acts, slavery has been officially declared abolished. However, for millions of women, particularly in the "third world", slavery is worse than ever before. In the name of "tradition" women still live their lives in slave-like conditions.

Consider the case of Nkechi, a 14-year old Ibo girl who is just one of the many girls serving as "slaves of the gods" in a shrine in the bush. Nkechi is forced to be a "slave" to atone for a crime; she had no hand in: "illegitimacy". Her duties include unpaid household chores, religious duties and providing sexual services to the fetish priests under the pretext of being married to a deity. All these girls are "atoning" for what is referred to as "Nso-Ani" - sacrilege. As they get older, they are replaced by younger ones - while the priest remains unchanged. Like the others, Nkechi is not free to change her place of residence or work and may remain in servitude for many years.

Some years back, the nation woke to the shocking story of Hauwa Abubakar who was withdrawn from school at the age of 12 by her father and married off to a man fit to be her grandfather. That same year her two legs were chopped off with a poisoned axe by her husband - for constantly running back home. Two weeks later she died. In spite of the public outcry that greeted this inhuman act the practice of child brides still goes on.

Another example of traditions with gender-specific dangers is the case of a Hausa woman killed in the western part of the country for being out while the Oro was passing through (a masquerade that women are forbidden from looking at).

All these acts, it is true, are perpetrated by men against women, but they take place within a definite socio-cultural milieu.

Significantly, these acts are not happening somewhere in the remote past, but in 21st century capitalism. Lenin described capitalism as "...horror without end". The brunt of this horror is borne most cruelly by women, especially in tradition-steeped "third-world" countries. After its conquest, the forces of finance capital could not institute in the backward regions it conquered those institutions already put in place in its birth place which, compared to those previously existing, marked a step forward. Rather, as it expanded into the colonies it adopted and adapted these feudal-medieval institutions and traditions to its rule.

It failed to improve the condition of "third-world" women, in relation to those in the advanced capitalist countries, even in a formal sense. She was, instead, subjected to a more remorseless oppression and exploitation. Thus, today, the Nigerian woman continues to suffer centuries-old torments in addition to more brutal subjugation.

Notwithstanding the various conventions guaranteeing her rights she continues to be fettered by a thousand and one traditional rites that degrade her; deep-seated rites that erode her freedom and dignity.

The barbaric practice in which she was bequeathed to her husband's relative; forced to drink corpse water; shave her head and sit naked for days, etc, in the event of her husband's death still exist for her and refusal to perform these rites is met with the severest cruelty. Those not killed outright or driven to suicide are treated as outcasts and pariahs - they are not "seen" nor "heard".

However, compared to her northern counterpart the southern Nigerian woman lives in "paradise". The northern woman is incomparably more fettered. She is the "slave of slaves"; to be disposed of as her parents and husband see fit - like the case of Hauwa, cited above. She is deprived of all rights whatsoever and confined to the home or purdah, as the case may be; given in marriage and made to bear children at a very tender age, etc.

The complete subjugation of women is enshrined in the society. The church and mosque supports it - "submit yourself to the will and desire of your husband," they command.

Tradition, like morality, has a class basis. It serves the interest of the ruling class. The struggle for emancipation of women is part of the struggle of the working class to transform society, because the subjugation of women is rooted in the subjugation of one class by another. Only the overthrow of class society can put an end to it. It is not just a struggle for women. It is not a struggle against men. It is a struggle against the root cause of all human baseness; all indignities to which the human soul is subjected - the capitalist system. Make it your struggle.

By Gaye D. C.,
Lagos, Nigeria

History & Theory » Topics » Women & Marxism